Virtuosity

Before diving into the Romantic Period, it is important to take stock of how the music world had changed over the last two centuries. Through much of music history to this point, the Church had been the primary benefactor of the great composers. As the Church’s influence began to wane, particularly in the German States, the nobility assumed primacy over music, which took a more secular turn. But there was no mistake–with the rare exception on the operatic stage–the composers were the stars.

That began to change with Corelli, whose primary claim to fame was as a violinist. Mozart of course built his initial fame as a child prodigy on piano and violin. Beethoven first rose to fame as a pianist and only later on as a composer. But Paganini was different. He was a sensation. He performed his own works, but other composers wrote works for him to perform. Paganini’s star gleamed brightest and only from the stage and while others would follow, he set the mold that every great musician follows to this day.

The word most frequently associated with Paganini is therefore “virtuoso”. But what does this word truly mean? The OED simply says “a person highly skilled in music.” Classic British understatement notwisthstanding, the OED misses the mark considerably. What does “virtuoso” mean? It means this:

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